The right kind of support

typeface publishing incentive program

In June 2013 Ampersand conference hosted an exhibition of work by students of typeface design courses, there were submissions from over 30 countries: a reminder that typeface design is an international endeavour, growing in recognition as a career with path for study and recognised professional norms. As with other professions, this maturity brings increasing competition for new designers.

Eighteen months ago Monotype initiated a Mentorship Program for designers under 30. Yesterday, Type-Together announced their Typeface Publishing Incentive Program, for graduating students. This initiative, open to all designers currently studying typeface design, recognises the pressures on designers who may have promising projects alongside financial loans, and the very real stress of “what happens after graduation?”

Like in any established profession, the careers paths of typeface design graduates are not uniform, and the demand by the market and potential employers may not match exactly with the skills and experience of graduates — this is normal, and it is one of the correctives that allows outliers to enter the profession, as well as feedback to education institutions so that they evolve. But anyone with a good understanding of the sector will regret the small number of exceptional projects developed during study that never, or very late, make it onto a foundry’s catalogue.

Type-Together and Monotype are putting their money where their mouth is, and are offering support to a promising designer for those crucial first months after graduation. This support can make the difference between a typeface with potential being developed properly, and it being lost between the Scylla of “I’ll do it when I have more time” and the Charybdis of some “free” service, for peanuts.

People will object and say that this is too little for a growing profession. I’ll counter that this may well be the beginning of a trend in companies supporting new professionals, parallel to many schemes in other sectors. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that most major foundries might soon have a similar scheme: this would allow them to get in early on potentially great typefaces, and check out a new professional (who may well end up being hired, or contracted). More widely, it allows foundries to send a clear message that they recognise and support excellence in typeface design, and — through their selections — what is innovative and worth exploring.

 

From concrete to fluid, but not yet to social

Lectures are often static objects. The size of the audience, time constraints, and the need for conference organisers to keep some editorial control make sessions mostly about transmission (“this is going to be just me speaking now”) rather than engagement (“I’ll guide a discussion through which you’ll learn”).

Although the audience size and format are often quoted, the traditional static nature of lectures was also connected, and in no small measure, to the way visual material was prepared. Slides (of the old kind, not digital ones) were expensive things you’d have to plan very carefully. Object needed to be photographed (expensive and slow), and slides developed and mounted (ditto). If you wanted text on slides, you’d need to prepare the text separately and shoot the slide on a rostrum (yet more cost and delay). Once lectures were delivered, they would either remain in the memories and notes of attendees, or be published as pamphlets or transcripts, usually omitting the images. The situation for lectures that are preserved as podcasts is similar.

My oldest lecture with PDF slides is from early 1999. I still remember the elation of being liberated from film. Scanners and Acrobat made planning of versions for different lengths and audiences orders of magnitude easier, and eliminated many costs. And working with text in slides became trivial. Yet, while the speed and flexibility of building lectures improved dramatically, the format of the lectures changed very little. From the point of view of the audience, the only difference is that transitions between slides were much faster and smoother, and that it was possible to linger on a single slide for many minutes, since doing this with a transparency risked burning the slide. Regardless, the transition to PDFs did not change the structure of the lecture from a somewhat rigid narrative punctuated by images.

The gradual adoption of presentation software like Keynote and PowerPoint for public lectures (because teaching environments are a different case; another blog post)  precipitated a shift to lectures being structured as sequences of images with annotations attached to them. The ease with which presentation apps allowed tree-style outlines to be built or imported strengthened this trend as a way to compose a lecture.

 

two lecture structures

From a single script with reminders to change the slide, to a series of slides with annotations.

For the speaker this means a greater number of slides, since each point in the narrative needs a slide simply to exist, let alone be elaborated. For the audience this is a Good Thing, since it adds a visual dimension to explanations that would otherwise be left to words alone. This is pretty much where we are today; tools like Prezi do not shift from this model. (Sliderocket offers collaborative functions and tracking elements, but these are intended for internal teams, not public engagement.)

But whereas lecture composition and delivery has (sort-of, if you’re in a generous mood) kept up with developments in content authoring, it has not progressed much in adding value to a lecture after it has been captured. We have acceptable records of what was shown and said at the time of delivery, mostly by sticking a camera in the aisle so that both the speaker and the slides are in the frame, or by splicing a talking head in a frame that is mostly taken over by the slide, or by trying to switch between the two. From the speaker’s point of view, the best you can hope for is a separate feed for the audio from the  microphone, instead of the camera’s own.

GL at ALUO talk, Ljubljana 2013

Close but no cigar, v.1: Less that half of the frame is important, images are skewed, and details may be lost. (From http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTMop3DUvs8)

Both these options exist in silos on YouTube or Vimeo, mostly. Although comments on the video’s page are possible, these stick on the page of the video, and by default refer to the whole: comments cannot link explicitly to a point in the stream.

River-Valley.TV slide

Close but no cigar v.2: both speaker and slides are visible all the time, but the interaction between the two is lost. (From http://river-valley.tv/e-book-trends-an-industry-analysts-viewpoint/)

Depending on the how the speaker uses the lecture slides, posting the deck on Speakerdeck or Slideshare may be anything from very useful to utterly confusing. Some speakers use their slides to illustrate points and punctuate their talk: they conceive the narrative as a combination of verbal and visual content in sync. But these decks tend to make little sense on their own, since the speakers’ explanations and bridging sentences are missing. (A “bridging sentence” spans two slides, and is used to join the transition to a new visual message with the verbal narrative.)

Tribute to Adam

Close but no cigar v. 3: “What’s this guy doing here? What’s the speaker’s point? By the way, nice jacket.” (My slide, from a TypoLondon 2012 talk)

On the other hand, speakers that use their slides as a record of the argument trade a less engaging presentation for a more useful record of the talk’s key points. This category of decks spans anything from a few sentences on a slide, like this:

Slide from a W3C workshop

Close but no cigar v. 4: “Why do I need to hear the speaker say these things, if I can read them already?” (My slide, from a W3C workshop panel, 2013)

… to semantic soups that make your head spin and scream “FFS, what where you thinking?!”

NSA PRISM slide

Close but no cigar v. 5: It really is impressive that any eavesdropping happens at all if they use these for training.

Both video capture and deck publishing are undeniably useful. But they are closed objects, with very limited scope for interaction and cross-referencing. Especially in non-academic circles, where a talk is not an exposition of a scholarly paper, the video or slide deck may be the only “text”. Speakers may transcribe their points in blog posts, but then the text in the blog post encapsulates the ideas, not the talk itself.

It is also possible to take a deck as a starting point, and annotate it in a way that it becomes a more-or-less self-contained text. I tried this with my latest talk on the relationship of tools and innovation, delivered in Warsaw a week ago. The slides went from 67 to 93, and the word count from 590 to 1,330. This is an experiment to compare the reach of this deck with other decks that were uploaded within minutes of delivery, warts n’ all.

Warsaw Design Debate uploaded slide

A slide that was projected during the lecture.

This was the slide that I added immediately after, in the uploaded deck:

Warsaw Design Debate uploaded slide

This slide summarises the explanations of the four points in the previous slide.

In some slides, I added text on the original slides:

Warsaw Design Debate uploaded slide

The text in white was presented in the lecture; the darker text was spoken, and added in the uploaded version.

So far so good?

But a good lecture generates commentary, both during its delivery and after it has been published. While a lecture is being delivered, things are happening: people are reportingcommenting, expanding, and even making old-style notes:

speaker evaluation

Services like Eventifier or Storify can build a partial record of an event after the fact, but they are not optimised for the smaller scale of a single lecture. And they primarily compile what’s already out there, without the functionality to edit the results or comment on specific parts. Even so, these results are not linked back to the lectures themselves, let alone the moment the tweets were posted or the images taken.

Worse, if someone writes a coherent and engaged response to a talk (like John D. Berry did for my Ampersand talk) this is isolated from the source, whether it exists on video or slide deck. Or any other part of the discussion the talk might have generated, for that matter.

Not very “social”, then. Events that are, in essence, starting points for discussions and catalysts for ideas, become fragmented, flat sets of disconnected objects.

So, what then?

A good lecture is a story with convincing arguments. A great lecture will leave the audience with new ideas, and set off ripples of discussions and further “texts”. Ideally, all these things are connected, and become part of a collaborative document. This is what citations do in the academic world, and what links do online. It seems paradoxical that we have easy ways to connect verbal hiccups, but do not have an easy, robust, and open way to link within lectures. Considering the effort that a good lecture encapsulates, this is pretty wasteful.

I don’t know if this platform exists, but here’s my back-of-an-envelope model for a slide deck viewer; obviously only one slide (and the discussion it generates) are viewable at a time:

 

Model of a slidedeck viewer

A vertical timeline, with author content on one side (slides and annotations) and social content on the other (comments, tweets, links) arranged alongside a specific slide, or a span of slides.

For this to work every slide would need to have its own URL, but that should be really easy. (So, my slides above could have addresses like
speakerdeck.com/gerryleonidas/2013/11/23/tti/slide28
and a comment
speakerdeck.com/gerryleonidas/2013/11/23/tti/slide28#http://twitter.com/username/status/01234567890123456789

For a video talk, something like this:

Model of a video viewer

Author annotations (if supplied) below the image, appearing according to timestamps. Below, a timeline with a liveblog-style scroll of tweets, in sync with the timestamp they relate to. And, next to them, a column with links and external references.

If there’s an easy way to link to a specific time point in a video stream from within a comment or a tweet, and collect all that together, I’ve missed it. But I’d like to be able to link to
vimeo.com/clearleft/2013/06/28/ampersand/gerryleonidas/20-45/.

You get the picture.

Any takers, internet?

Echoes on designing across scripts

Last Sunday, at the ATypI conference in Amsterdam, Alexandra Korolkova was awarded the Prix Charles Peignot for Excellence in Type Design. Although the award is for work in typeface design, Alexandra stands out for another reason: she has written, illustrated, and composed a book on typography within a very short time after graduation. I can’t read Russian, but I bought the book straight after she showed it to me in 2008, as a superb example of early achievement and determination. It also looks good.

In her acceptance speech Alexandra touched on the issue of typeface designers working in scripts they are not native to. The comments sparked some discussion on Twitter, when Laurence Penney noted the contrast with my article on Typographica reviewing the developments in global type design. My article encapsulated my research and practical experience in this area, rather than address the specific issue of contemporary designers working on multi-script typefaces. (I promised I’ll do this before too long.)

So far, so good. If nothing else, the exchange highlighted that the type world is not yet in agreement about the issue of designers shaping letters in scripts they can’t read. But this morning I was hunting for an unrelated reference and Spotlight brought up an email from the very first OpenType list that gave me that special feeling of

The email is dated 1 July 1998, and the subject is Matching glyphs from different scripts. It is part of a long thread, which does not survive complete in my archive, so it’s somewhat in medias res. I’ve anonymised the correspondents, and excised a short paragraph that was referring to another thread. Otherwise it’s as was.

 

Dear [A] and [B], I think you missed my point. Please let me explain.

First I wrote:

Greek certainly proves the point that, while proficiency in a non-native language helps the designer, it by no means an essential condition for excellence in type design.

This is supported by typefaces such as Porson Greek, Scholderer’s New Hellenic, the Max Steltzer Series 90 (via Schelter & Giesecke), more recently some of Matthew Carter’s designs. Although the first two knew classical Greek, the conditions of approaching a language as an object of scholarly observation and analysis based on a finite and immutable set of texts, and the conditions of reproduction of such texts, argue against the
classicists having a dynamic relationship with the language. A native user not only engages in dialogue, but also encounters the written/printed language in unknown format & content, and in huge variety. On the other hand, there are too many typefaces designed by Greek graphic designers / computer engineers / whatever in which the native familiarity with the language did not do the least good in terms of the typographical quality of their work. I cannot refer to examples here, since such typefaces are limited to the domestic market, but I promise to bring a folder with examples at ATypI 98 (I showed some examples in my talk at ATypI 97, if things go as planned these will get a wider airing in the coming months).

My point is that the ability to design a successful typeface, resides primarily in the ability to digest as much as possible of the script’s/language’s typographical tradition, analyse it in formal terms pertinent to typograhical design (which are not necessarily as exact as an engineer would have in mind) and apply the personal interpretation stemming from experience, opinion, and talent of the individual. The reason why non-native designers find Greek much harder than their native flavour of the Latin script is not their inability to converse in Greek, but the lack of continuous contact with a plethora of Greek letterforms. (To this you could add the lesser factor of the unfamiliarity with scribal letterforms, but this is a huge debate in typographical circles, and I would take it with a pinch of salt.)

[A] wrote:

I’m afraid you cannot convince me that you believe this when two breaths later you aver

My feeling … is that people at the right places are becoming much more aware of the need to *test a design with qualified native speakers ….* The problem with marketing would seem to be the budgetary and scheduling pressure for few test/feedback cycles. But still, I think the situation nowadays is better than a a decade or two ago.

I’m terribly sorry, but if you grant the requirement to test a design with native speakers — and then go on to decry the evil of budgetary constraints which allow only a “few” test / feedback cycles, you are not doing anything but confirming my original claim in different language. The glyphs may have been rearranged, but they appear to add up to the same point.

[A], I did not write: “test a design with native speakers”, I wrote: “test a design with qualified native speakers”. The “qualified” bit is at least as important — if not more so — than the “native” bit. The non-typographically aware reader is a very poor judge of typeface design, simply because familiarity with the language and the experience of daily exposure to a huge variety of written/printed letterforms makes reading a far from conscious excercise relying hugely on contextual deduction. This is well established and you can easily test yourself. The limited number of revision cycles (and note that I did not place “few” within quotes) simply encroaches on the amount of information the non-native type designer can receive from the _qualified_ native reviewer.

It is also very hard to accept that the type industry has more funds available for testing now than it did two decades ago ! … !

It probably does not. But the speed and ease of altering digital designs makes revision much easier than the production of hot-metal or phototype typefaces ever allowed, wouldn’t you agree?

Moreover I have problems with the implication that all the subtleties of a printed language can be resolved in a few “beta cycles”. A typeface is not some tacky little piece of software, no matter what technological clothes it wears.

Nobody suggested that “all the subtleties of a printed language” can be resolved in a few revisions, whatever these subtleties may be (which I am not sure I could answer conclusively). But I would think that it is beyond doubt that a promising design can be made at least adequate, if not quite good for producing printed/rendered texts in the language in question; and, of course, a design with no promise can be pointed out as such, so that no more effort is spent on it. Yes, a typeface is not a piece of software; it is a bunch of shapes and patterns of black and white whose designer intends to be preceived in a particular way. In other words, typefaces are subjective interpretations of relatively stable common denominators in a far-from-watertight cultural (in the broader sense) environment. It is precicely because of this definition that it is possible for a person with more experience/knowledge/ability/whatever to help another person with parallel qualifications to achieve a new subjective interpretation of these denominators that is accepted as valid within that cultural context.

I scent — perhaps I am being oversensitive? — a deeper implication here, that a great art/craft can be democratized to the point where virtually any “hack” can do it–an important postwar illusion that is gradually being punctured. […]

I think you are jumping to conclusions. Nowhere do I imply that it is possible to write a “Bible for Greek Type Design”. But I am certain that it is possible to put on paper unambiguously certain factors that affect significantly the probabilities a particular design has to be successful. For example, it is not possible to understand the development of Greek letterforms without correlating the changes in letterforms to political and cultural conditions a) within the Greek lands; and b) where Greek was used by non-Greek nationals. There’s nothing under this subject that cannot be put in a book (given the required research and effort) but much that contemporary type designers could not be bothered to delve into.

As a “beta tester” for Greek, I try to bring to the design process all the experience / knowledge / ability / whatever a design requires to be accepted by familiar users of Greek texts. I am confident that I give very good value-for-money, but I cannot guarantee the success of a typeface; that resides with the talent of the original designer. This factor, “the talent of the original designer”, is the only part of the  process that you can call an art. There’s more than one way of designing Greek. I can help the designer to make it “correct” Greek, but only the designer him/herself can make it beautiful.

[…]

I think [C]’s comment sums it up pretty well:
[...] The obvious answer to this dilemma is education and cooperation. We all need to learn from one another, and there will be mistakes but this is the only sensible way to go within our field. [...]

**********

Nothing new under the sun. (And, five years later, [C] would spearhead a project that marked a peak for cooperation in typeface design.)

 

Postscript

I don’t remember when the OpenType list first went live. My earliest emails date from Q4 1997. For several years the list was probably the best source of information and expert opinion for people developing the OpenType standard. Since wide character sets and typographic “smarts” were part of the standard from the very beginning, it is no surprise that many discussions addressed issues in global typography.

The OpenType list of the early years is unique. This was one of the first online fora that documented script- and language-specific information for digital typography in a manner that, to subscribers at least, was easily accessible. If I remember correctly, early archives were lost in one of the server moves. Although these threads exist on subscribers’ personal archives, as far as I know they have not been made public. I’d love to be proven wrong.

 

You can’t put a price on expertise

Them:

Good afternoon,

[publisher name] is currently considering a book proposal titled [something to do with your work]. We are looking for reviewers who actively teach this course or a course on Graphic Design / Typography / Communication Design / Visual Communication. You will have approximately 1 week to complete your review of a proposal including an abstract, sample material and table of contents; the honorarium will be $50 worth of books from [publisher name]. We will send the material via email attachment.

If you are interested in reviewing, please reply and let me know:
• The name of the course you teach.
• When did you most recently teach it, and how soon will you teach it in the future?
• What book, if any, do you require your students to use in the course?

Thank you in advance for your reply.

 

Me:

Dear [redacted name],

thank you for your email.

I’m sorry, but I cannot help you. My rate for commercial work is 150 GBP per hour, or 900 GBP per day. I am happy to come down if the project is one I am really keen to be involved in, but, in all honesty, 50 USD in book vouchers is insulting.

A saying about monkeys and peanuts does come to mind.

Good luck with the project,

 

I never heard back.